Meta vs local

I was thinking that so many of the issues going on politically have to do with people who mistake the particular for the global.

For example, every person who gets immunizations has some small risk of complication. As a population, immunizations have eliminated terrible diseases.

Locally, it may be an unusually cold year. Globally, on average, temps are rising.

BMI is a terrible measure of personal health, but a great measurement for population studies.

Balancing your checkbook is easy to comprehend. Balancing the national budget requires different math.

I feel that in general there are groups that are profiting off the confusion that arises when someone tries to argue against, say, immunization based on the risks to an individual, or when someone tries to argue that it’s easy to figure out the national budget since they have figured out how to save a few dollars.


You know, that’s an interesting phenomenon here. I wonder if that sort of thinking (imagining that the particular applies to the local) is/was always the case or if there is something specific in today’s world that has given rise to it. For example, is there a connection to the rise of individualism and neo-liberalism, that also correspond to the notion that the particular is the universal?


Yes. I wonder sometimes if it’s an education thing or exactly what. I know lots of people with good heads on their shoulders who make this confusion.

Like, BMI, I was talking to a doctor who works with people here on Long Island to improve their health through nutrition. So, right, he works with fat people by and large. Somehow we got onto BMI and he was saying that he measures body fat (on his scale) as the main measure of health. I was explaining that for world nutrition, BMI is a very very useful tool, mainly because even the poorest countries can come up with a scale and a ruler and use them well enough to get a meaningful measurement. (I worked in international nutrition when I was first got out of college). Then BMI can be compared across cultures. Very useful - population wise. But he was like, “Well, if they have a tape measure, why not use hip to waist ratio instead?” Um, because it requires skill to measure that. Because most countries are worried about not having enough weight vs height, not too little.


I think it’s an effect of scale; most folks don’t have a clue about complexity.


I think this ties in with the human brain’s reliance on the availability heuristic.

Things that you encounter more often or are already familiar with are assumed to be the case. So more nuanced complex things end up being understood as not only simplifications, but completely wrong ones too selected for on the basis of the interlocutor’s familiarity with shallow details. Nit understanding the whole system.


Most folks don’t have a clue about scale.

I say if you don’t fall to your knees and weep at the impossible bigness of the universe every now and then, you probably don’t get it at all.


When I was a kid, I used to get sort of nightmares, where I would alternate between feeling like a microscopic speck in the vastness, and feeling like it was kilometres from one hand to my other…

Recently I’ve been occasionally feeling like that while awake. It’s trippy. Might have something to do with the last time I did acid a few months back, when all the space in the universe disappeared for a few moments…


What a great example! Did the doc take a moment to let it sink in?

No, think he really is so immersed in helping people manage 1st world problems that it was hard for him to grasp that there are actually a lot more people who worry about getting any food at all.


That sounds esp. frustrating from a doctor.

People here don’t have much of a global view. When I worked in nutrition, I had the chance to read some policy papers about nutrition in several African nations. My favorite part of these papers was a section that would explain typical eating habits of the local area, especially of children. These painted a vivid picture of day to day struggle. Many countries have an issue when children are weaned where the food they are given is too thick for the children to eat properly, and often the men are prioritized over the children, so a lot of one and two year olds have very poor nutrition. Really it is sad and heartbreaking, and most of the starvation is due to war in these countries and not lack of natural resources. We are very privileged here.


That totally fascinates and upsets me at the same time. What’s your thinking on the food deserts burdening kids in U.S. neighborhoods?

My job was as an admin assistant on a project that was with the Department of State. I had no background except an aunt who was connected. I had two co-workers who had MAs in Nutrition from Tufts University, and they taught me a lot. I also had a lot of time on my hands to read. Those nutrition papers were put together for a conference and I am not even sure if anyone but me ever read them. I thought the project I served on was a terrible waste of money, except for the work my co-workers did almost in spite of the terrible management of the project. I really am not up on nutrition these days or knowledgeable about what is happening with food deserts, but I did learn a lot about food aid and the issues with distributing it.

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I like how interested you are in the issues. And you sound like someone who has professional experience and/or graduate training. And I hadn’t thought of the point you made about BMI which really inspired me to think about the question in the contexts more familiar to me. So thank you!

Thanks. The project I worked on was a collosal waste of resources. The head of the project was what they call a “double-dipper.” He had retired as an assistant attorney general and had full retirement from the Federal Government and he ALSO drew a hefty salary from this private government contract. He spent his entire day playing solitaire and running personal errands.

The two women I worked with had graduated from Tufts University with MAs, which is the top nutrition school in the country. As we were bored a lot, they taught me about issues around food aid and policies related to food in third world countries. It is very complicated. I enjoyed working with them but nutrition and international stuff definitely wasn’t for me.

In many countries, the health care is so poor. Little things like getting vitamin supplements into food or changing local laws can have huge impacts on health. Even though our health care for a first world country is terrible, we have so much more than people who live in countries with crappy roads, little political infrastructure, and few trained medical people.

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